While the UK has come a long way when it comes to gender diversity in the workplace, engineering is still a largely male-dominated sector. Just 7% of British engineering professionals are female, and women account for less than 15% of engineering graduates.
And in a world that continues to grow increasingly dependent on technology – where it’s predicted that the UK will need almost 2 million new engineering, science and technology professionals by 2022 – we simply can’t afford to ignore half of our working population.
We recently hosted a special event to mark National Women in Engineering Day.
Here are a few of the highlights from the event, where a team of industry experts discussed the promising career opportunities, the cultural and educational challenges, and the ways in which we can all help to promote and encourage talented young women in a rewarding field.
It’s a fast-growing sector full of opportunity
We’re moving into a new generation of innovative technologies.
The Internet of Things, nanotechnology and the rise of modern technologies such as solar power mean that the stereotype of engineering as a greasy, physical process is becoming outdated.
And perhaps more importantly, there’s a much higher demand for skills unrelated to physical strength.
‘Engineering is the future,’ said Dr Arti Agrawal, a lecturer at City University London. ‘We have so many new technologies coming which are disruptive. They’re going to change everything, and it’s all going to happen through engineering. I can see a whole new world, and engineering is the way forward for it.’
And for females with an interest in science and technology, there couldn’t be a better time:
• the UK is facing a shortage of engineers
• workplace attitudes are steadily growing more progressive
• more businesses have family-friendly policies than ever before.
But there are obstacles to overcome
Unfortunately, despite the promise of a rewarding career and the efforts of employers and organisations to encourage females into the sector, the attitudes of schools, parents and society in general aren’t helping.
While males are typically encouraged by those around them to pursue their interests in science and technology, the support for females is usually considerably lower.
‘Parents have a massive role to play,’ said Dawn Bonfield, president of the Women’s Engineering Society.
‘According to statistics, only 7% of parents would encourage their daughters to take engineering, of which only 1% of mothers would do so. So until we can convince the mothers that engineering is a suitable career for a girl, we’ll always struggle with that barrier.’
But this skewed career advice isn’t only found at home.
According to Claire Miles, managing director of British Gas Homecare, there is an opportunity for schools to do more.
‘We’ve done a lot of research into the subject ourselves, and it tells us that parents and teachers are twice as likely to encourage boys to go into engineering, and specifically, to take an apprenticeship. We have to change the education that girls are getting as they’re growing up.’
Even after overcoming biased advice, there are still challenges for women working in engineering further down the line – especially when it comes to starting families.
According to Bonfield, there are 22,000 qualified female engineers who aren’t currently working in engineering, possibly because of their family commitments.
‘For me, that was the thing that stopped me having a career in engineering,’ she explained. ‘I’ve never been back to become a practising engineer since my third child. We’ve got all of these women out there who potentially could be employed in engineering, and we’re always saying there’s a massive skills gap. We need to be able to find who they are and allow them to return to engineering.’
So what can we do to help more women into engineering?
In Dr Agrawal’s view, we need to inform young people about the industry early on, before they start to make long-term decisions about their futures.
‘It’s really important that we get out into schools and give the message across about what science, engineering and technology can do – what kind of careers they can have and how much fun it is.’
‘Studies also show that young girls respond really well to societal challenges: what they can do to make the world a better place. So if we send those messages across, I’m sure we’ll attract more girls into science and engineering.’